How Russia Learned to Start Worrying

The news was not “fake,” but the measures were hardly enforced. Social media that weekend was full of photographs of groups of people congregating in picnic areas to grill shashlik. One of the patriots in the banya chat wrote that he had seen beat cops ticketing a babushka just for sitting on a bench outside, but the cops in the group were sure that he was making it up. It was clear that no one had any idea what was supposed to be happening.

Russian coronavirus disinformation exists. Until April, its main audience was domestic.

On the set of Time Will Tell.

It got crazy during the commercial break. That’s when the most interesting debates always happen anyway, but January 27 was more interesting than most. The scandal of the day on Russia’s daytime talk shows was the “toxicity” of Ukraine in American politics. I had been invited to be shouted over by the other six guests and two hosts for a pair of twenty-minute segments: one about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s childish trolling of NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly, the other on the emergence of Ukrainian-American Igor Fruman’s secret recording of a high-roller Trump fundraiser. To round out the first block, a State Duma deputy was given two minutes to rant in my general direction about American colonization in what he thought still should have been Moscow’s rightful sphere of influence. Nothing out of the ordinary.

The block ended and the makeup girls rushed into the studio to touch up all of the middle-aged male “experts,” but the Russian legislator’s diatribe did not stop. Instead, it moved on to a seemingly different topic. The coronavirus death count in Hubei province stood at 76 and the city of Wuhan had been on lockdown for four days already—wasn’t it suspicious that the outbreak was appearing so shortly after the announcement of yet another Trump-brokered trade deal? I interrupted to make sure that I correctly understood that the Russian M.P. was suggesting that the virus had been an American export, and he confirmed that my non-native Russian was not defective. The Russian M.P. then turned to the studio audience (one hundred or so mostly pensioners who were paid $8 per day to sit attentively and clap on cue) and laid out his historical case: just as American laboratories had engineered the AIDS virus in response to the Soviet Union’s geopolitical victories on the African continent during the Cold War, Washington was now developing new biological weapons to be used against any specific race that posed a threat to Uncle Sam’s continued unipolar dominance. This was precisely why, in his telling, USAID had been funding scientific research centers in countries like Ukraine—these facilities were tasked with collecting the “biomaterial” (a scientific euphemism for “shit”) of slavic peoples in order to create a perfectly tuned virus that could be unleashed against Russia herself should the motherland continue to question Donald Trump’s authority to rule the world.

The hosts returned to the studio and the discussion moved on to Fruman’s video. I got the chance to point out that Donald Trump was a bumbling idiot, and the Russian M.P. argued back that “an idiot could not have delivered 4 percent economic growth the way that Trump has for America.” And that was that. We broke for commercial, and the next shift of “experts” came into the studio to yell at each other about the Donbass. Coronavirus on Russian TV was still the third-tier story it was everywhere outside of China.

I have an informal focus group: the ten or fifteen cops and entrepreneurial types whom I meet at my less-than-prestigious neighborhood’s banya every week at a particular time on a particular evening. We spend two naked hours going in and out of the sauna and then two more shirtless hours packed around a wooden cafe picnic table, eating finger foods and drinking moonshine. On non-steaming days, we keep up a WhatsApp group chat mostly composed of funny memes and dacha barbecue photographs, only occasionally getting fairly heated about politics. There’s one cautious liberal, three or four fairly open-minded pro-stability types, and a whole bunch of “my country, right or wrong” patriots. Since January, this last category’s evolution on coronavirus perfectly mirrored that of Russian state television—from American operation, to distant threat, to serious problem.

The first time I was invited on air to discuss coronavirus specifically—kind of—was January 31. The talk show did a twenty-minute block about US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s hopes that the outbreak in China would persuade manufacturers to move production back to America. The show’s combative host went on for a few minutes about the “shameless competition” of a superpower that, even if it hadn’t engineered the virus, was using the resulting crisis as cynically as possible. All I could argue back in the thirty constantly interrupted seconds I finally got was that the analysis of the US Commerce Secretary (as usual) bore little resemblance to objective reality. To close things out, a different M.P. was given his uninterrupted two minutes to sum things up from the Russian perspective, which (as usual) bore little resemblance to objective reality: “the fact that the Americans were so well-prepared to use this crisis as a mechanism for removing their manufacturing from China raises the question about whether the virus really appeared naturally, or not.”

From there, coronavirus became a regular character on Russian TV, though not as a potential threat to global health, let alone to Russia. Already on February 1, a special correspondent known for running with obvious fakes aired a news segment arguing that the new coronavirus was less a physical threat than a mental one; the economic numbers from Wuhan looked far worse than the death toll, and so whoever had ordered the city closed had clearly been tricked into taking such a self-destructive step. On February 5, the evening news followed this up with a six-minute segment linking the etymology of “corona”-virus to the crowns that Donald Trump had once placed on the heads of beauty pageant winners (the segment went on to rehash conspiracy theories about American biological laboratories in the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine). Two days later, the same anchor ran a five-minute segment asking “how coincidental” it was that the virus had happened to appear in such a commercially vital center as Wuhan in such a powerful U.S. geopolitical competitor as China; the anchor’s quick postscript to the story insulted the intelligence of any viewer gullible enough to have interpreted his two-days-prior “corona”-virus etymology as anything other than an obvious joke.

And, mostly, the topic really was treated as a joke, albeit one that was doing real economic harm. (Russia had closed its Far Eastern border with China on January 31 and evacuated its citizens from the Wuhan region into a fourteen-day Siberian quarantine shortly thereafter.) Still, the most frequent analysis of the situation I heard from talk show guests in the green room and, by extension, from the taxi drivers and market butchers and banya buddies who didn’t see through them, was that Russia had nothing to worry about. Either the coronavirus was an American bio-weapon designed specifically to infect only “Mongoloids,” or it was nothing that a couple hundred grams of vodka couldn’t kill. (I literally can’t remember how many shot glass toasts I clinked “to the medicine against coronavirus” throughout February and early March.)

Or it was all just a massive extortion racket. On March 10, a few hours before the announcement of a plan to change the constitution in order to allow Russian president Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036, the talk show topic was America’s perplexing success in moving its viral operation from China to Europe, where it would now eliminate any potential future competition from BMW and Fiat (no mention was made of the Italian carmaker’s partnership with Detroit-based Chrysler). That evening, however, Moscow took its first measure to impede the spread of the virus domestically; having received political opposition groups’ formal application for permission to hold weekend protests against the proposed constitutional amendments, the mayor cited the threat of coronavirus as his reason for suddenly banning any gathering of 5,000 people or more.

Then, for weeks, as hospitals in Lombardy resorted to triage and most of Europe went into lockdown, Russia did next to nothing to inconvenience its loyal citizens. On March 12, I was called in to talk for twenty minutes about Trump’s announced Europe travel ban and for another hour about the harsh sentence against Harvey Weinstein. Both in the green room and upon entering the studio, I committed a glaring violation of Russian social norms by insisting that we replace the customary handshake with an awkward elbow bump. The combative host refused and, later that evening, posted on his Facebook page essentially the same thing he had been saying on air for a month: that “coronavirus exists, just like tuberculosis, diarrhea, respiratory disease,” but since the “WHO did not declare any of these causes of death to be pandemics,” the “tantrums of hysteria all over the world” created “by whom and for what, time will tell” could only be interpreted as a “test of everyone to check their susceptibility to becoming objects of global manipulation.”

I suggested to my wife that she and our young son pay a visit to her septuagenarian pack-a-day-smoker father in the Russian provinces while they still could. Even she thought I was overreacting. And maybe she was right—there were very few evenings in March when I did not come home and pour a glass of something to calm myself down over what I was pretty sure was coming to Russia within a few weeks.

My informal focus group was following along, but not uniformly. By mid-March, the one cautious liberal was already calling for a nationwide quarantine, while the cops were adamant that nothing of the sort was even up for discussion. The open-minded contingent, most of whom had friends or family in Europe, was beginning to post secondhand stories about the reality on the ground in Italy and asking me whether I found the descriptions of triage and forced cremation plausible. I generally did. Then the patriots would call us “panickers” and insist that, even if something like that really were happening in Italy, it could only be because of the flaws in European health care systems—flaws which the Russian system (right or wrong) did not share. They posted videos shot by Russian immigrants who had begun filming the lines of American suburbanites socially distancing behind their Costco shopping carts while patiently awaiting their chance to stock up on toilet paper and whatever else. “Look at these panickers,” went the commentary, “this is hysteria.” But buckwheat was already disappearing from the shelves of Moscow’s supermarkets (three or four kilograms of it into my sock drawer), a testament to the fact that a whole lot of Russians were, like me, getting ready for what my patriotic buddies still wouldn’t believe was inevitable.

On Monday, March 16, Moscow’s schools began a three-week holiday and the talk show stopped bringing in the pensioner-heavy live audience. Posted on the automatic glass doors at the entrance to the studio complex was a laminated sheet of paper advising everyone to avoid any mass gatherings that featured live animals and to talk to a doctor if they had recently returned from China. Between the metal detectors and the security guard’s turnstiles, a woman in a white lab coat was posted to take the temperature of all workers entering the building.

The combative host was not pleased with any of it. He opened that day’s program by explaining, sure, the virus was real, but the world was dividing up between “those who understand that our lives take place surrounded by billions of viruses and that people have always died from them” and those who “up until now thought that we lived in a vacuum in a test tube and have just now realized that man is mortal.” On air I actually had a decent back-and-forth with the show’s straight man, who asked me about the economic consequences of so many European cities shutting down. I answered that a temporary recession was preferable to the “sorting of patients” that was already underway in northern Italy, and he found this reasonable. After the show, he even accepted my elbow bump. The combative host did not.

The next afternoon I was in the green room during the opening segment, a conspiratorial analysis of the “information epidemic” threatening to do more harm than any deadly disease ever could. I came in for the second block, which the combative host opened with a riff in which I was called out by name as “strange” for refusing to shake hands and for insisting that “everybody here doesn’t seem to understand how serious this situation is.” Then discussion moved on to England, where the channel’s foreign correspondent demonstrated the sanity of Londoners fearlessly going about their lives so as to build up herd immunity. A general practitioner M.D. was in the studio to support the benefits of such a “non-hysterical” position, and even the Russian liberal brought in—like me—to be shouted over while criticizing his own government suggested in Trumpian fashion that any lockdown-induced economic crisis would probably in fact end up being more deadly than the virus itself.

But things were slowly beginning to change. The M.P. who a month earlier had speculated on the American origins of the Chinese outbreak now pointed to the death rates in different countries—”in China it was 3 percent, but in Italy it is 7 percent”—to argue that measures needed to be taken to ensure that the Russian healthcare system did not become overwhelmed as well.

The population was moving the same way as the M.P.—slowly. The rush-hour metro was still uncomfortably crowded and the old ladies who recognized me while I stocked up on root vegetables at the market insisted that the whole thing would be over in two weeks. A few younger people were putting on masks. On Friday, March 20, three days after ridiculing me on air, the main host even accepted my elbow bump. Granted, he shook the hands of all the other exiting guests (including a couple of medical doctors), and when I caught him in the hallway to ask him about that, he explained that it was no use modifying his behavior: “the virus is already in Russia; there’s nothing we can do.” At least the elbow bump was a start.

The next week turned out to be the last banya for who knows how long. I stayed away and instead chased the kid through the park on his scooter, but the guys posted pictures to our WhatsApp chat of the standard shirtless close-contact finger-food and moonshine banquet.

Then, two days later, on March 25, Putin announced a nationwide week-long paid holiday. Banyas and beauty salons were ordered closed through April 6, and restaurants would only be permitted to serve takeout. The Moscow mayor amended the order for his city, instructing people who could work from home to do so, and the Prime Minister followed this up with an announcement that the Moscow protocol should be adopted nationwide—the first week of April would not be a holiday in the traditional sense.

On Thursday, March 26, I was back in the studio and still firmly in the minority, though that minority was changing. The Russian liberals with whom I usually agreed were all upset about the new restrictions—the government could not be trusted to exercise emergency powers responsibly and, in any case, who was going to pay for all of this? But the professional “patriots” who usually interpreted anything that happened in the world as part of the CIA’s master plan? Several of them had seen the videos of mobile morgues on New York City streets and concluded that the footage was not fake, and a handful of them even knew how an exponential equation worked. And so while I kept my social distance from the other guests in the green room, I listened as a smart liberal and a professional conspiracy fantasist agreed that any economically restrictive measures taken to slow the spread of the virus would only do more harm than good, and I watched as the segment live on the air before mine devolved into an argument between the combative host and a statistically minded “patriot” who under normal circumstances had always found a way to make the numbers fit the Kremlin’s line.

The shift changed for the final hour-long block of airtime, but I was mostly excluded from the discussion as things devolved into conspiracy theorizing—the virus was an out-of-control American bio-weapon and Washington was now reaping what it had sown; no! most of the people dying with the virus were not dying of the virus, and so the virus was not really as bad as it was being made to seem by whomever was using it in order to plunge the world into a twenty-first century Great Depression; no! the virus didn’t actually exist, but was a Chinese psychological operation designed to trick everyone else into shutting down their economies so that China could open back up just in time to take over the world. The combative host was not sure which of these versions was right; he was only sure that my version was wrong: in his estimation, the coronavirus could not possibly have been a naturally occurring phenomenon that, if allowed to spread, would quickly overwhelm the capacities of any health care system in the world.

The regular guests—and even the hosts—peddling this horseshit on Russia’s main quasi-federal channel were not playing to the cameras. When all of us useful idiots made our way back to the green room to wipe off the makeup, the conversation stayed the same. No matter how imploringly I pointed to the examples of Milan and Barcelona and Paris and New York and, by then, even London, none of the other talking heads would believe that anything about life in Moscow was about to change. At the same time CNN was speculating that Russia would use the outbreak as an excuse to turn on its facial-recognition trackers (and then never turn them off), the pundits on Russian State TV really were convinced that Russia was immune to coronavirus.

Again, though, regular people were starting to get it. A couple of the banya guys had already moved their families to the dacha, and cafe workers seemed to understand that the handwritten signs on their front doors about how “in accordance with the announcement of the government of the Russian Federation, we will be closed from 28 March until 6 April” were probably overly optimistic. On Friday, March 27, I ducked into a Soviet-style home-cooking cafeteria a couple of blocks from home for one last serving of pickled-herring-under-a-fur-coat salad and one last little chat with the fifty-something cashier who always remembers my son’s name. “I’ll see you again on the sixth of April,” she said as we bussed our tray. I responded that I genuinely hoped that that would be possible. “I know,” she responded with a sigh while looking like she was holding back tears—“nobody knows when we’ll really be back . . . if we’ll be back.”

In my WhatsApp chat the level of understanding was more mixed. The open-minded contingent was sharing clips of dashcam footage that showed kilometer-long columns of buses carrying National Guardsmen towards Moscow, but the patriots were sure that it was all part of a pre-planned movement in anticipation of rehearsals for the annual Victory Day parade on May 9—only “panickers” could really think that the soldiers would be deployed on the streets. On Saturday morning—March 28—the mayor’s office put out guidelines requiring senior citizens to stay home and advising everyone else to avoid going anywhere except to a supermarket or pharmacy. The chat-group liberal posted a link to the mayor’s website, where the official announcement was posted, but it still took ten minutes to convince a couple of the cops that the news was not “fake.”

The news was not “fake,” but the measures were hardly enforced. Social media that weekend was full of photographs of groups of people congregating in picnic areas to grill shashlik. One of the patriots in the banya chat wrote that he had seen beat cops ticketing a babushka just for sitting on a bench outside, but the cops in the group were sure that he was making it up. It was clear that no one had any idea what was supposed to be happening.

And so on Monday, March 30, the social distancing measures were announced again, this time via a recorded message from the Moscow mayor aired on my channel’s morning news program. The mayor’s message was reinforced with scenes from New York and the warning that, if Russians didn’t start taking the threat seriously, their cities would be next. During commercial breaks, celebrities were suddenly giving public service announcements about the importance of hand-washing and self-isolation. I was not on air for the talk show that day, but I tuned in to see an unusual selection of invited guests—actual epidemiologists and high-ranking representatives from the government—saying exactly what I had been shouted over for trying to say for a month: coronavirus was spreading in Russia, and everyone needed to take concrete measures to stop it. Even the combative host had more or less fallen into line.

Moscow still isn’t a ghost town, but it’s close. Towards the middle of that first “paid week off,” Putin went on air to announce that the new way of life was being extended to the end of April (though almost no one put out of work expects to be going back anytime before June). Ridership on the Moscow metro was down over 80 percent, and traffic jams had all but disappeared. Nonetheless, on April 15 the city government still went through with a plan to institute a new electronic pass system designed to prevent non-essential workers from using any form of transportation without first getting permission. Around a million QR codes were issued to workers deemed “essential,” but the police initially overdid it on the enforcement. So, on the first day crowds of morning rush hour, riders—almost all of them legitimate pass holders—were herded together into underground tunnels to have their documents checked before they could get on trains. The scandal was the main story on the talk shows and was fixed by evening.

In theory my pass would allow me to get on the metro too, but I only use my QR code for its official purpose: to take a taxi to the studio once or twice a week to criticize Trump for whatever nonsense he said this time. Along the road, a solid fifth of the billboards encourage people to stay home and wash their hands. All parks and playgrounds have been closed with caution tape since the final days of March, and a couple of viral videos have shown police aggressively detaining dog walkers who ducked under the red-and-white ribbon for a stroll around Patriarch Ponds, an iconic park in a tony downtown district. It’s not clear if it’s technically a violation to take a kid down into the apartment complex courtyard to help carry the trash to the dumpster. If it is, then it’s one that has not yet begun to be enforced.

Last week my wife had work that wasn’t going to get done so long as a five-year-old remained in our two-room apartment. As a result, our casual stroll to the dumpster took us a frowned-upon full kilometer off our block, all the way to the Caucasian bakery on what used to be the main commercial avenue in our neighborhood. The place was open for takeout with the cash register placed just inside the front door. Standing on the street, we got a poppy seed roll in a little plastic bag. As we walked on, the kid’s mouth full, a group of three very young National Guardsmen, their masks hanging down around their chins, appeared on the sidewalk moving slowly in our direction. I didn’t want to make any suspicious moves and figured that, with the kid chewing, he was unlikely to say anything in English that might give us away. And so we just continued at our normal pace and passed the pimple-faced authorities without incident.

Twenty meters on, I turned around, took a surreptitious photo, and uploaded it to the banya chat. “Nothing new,” went the response of a cop who less than a month ago had been adamant that such a scene on the streets of Moscow was impossible, “they’ve been patrolling for ten days already.” Then, characteristically, he trolled me a little bit: “And it’s irresponsible of you to be out on the street without a clear purpose. We have a regime of self-isolation!!!” And just like that, for the first time in our friendship, he was finally right about something.

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